Last night, thanks to Maestro Arts Management, Boston heard violinist Vadim Repin and pianist Itamar Golan in recital in New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, performing sonatas by Janácek, Ravel, and Grieg, along with two French showpieces to finish out the virtuosic concert. It was a connoisseur’s program; it drew out shared musical gestures across the pieces, and the performance demanded a high degree of technical mastery, which was very much on display.
The program opened with Leoš Janácek, Sonata for Violin and Piano (JW VII/7; composed in 1914 and revised in 1922). This work is both disjointed and abbreviated, the violin and piano parts proceeding with greater-than-usual independence. The romantically-tinged phrases are interspersed with rapid rhythmic figures scratched out on the violin, making the whole seem a battle between the two parts. The first movement, Con moto, opens with a legato violin line over a virtuosic workout on piano. The Balada highlights Janácek’s gift for memorable melody; Repin added portamenti to the singing violin phrases, perhaps an added folkloric element to this interpretation. The Allegretto alternates between a playful and highly rhythmic dance heard first in this third movement’s opening then later in the pizzicato violin, and a slower melodic section. Along the way the violin swoops down like a bird from the sky, joining in or playing along. The Adagio is a curious movement, trying to be a scherzo in many ways. The violin has some flowing melodies more typically encountered in adagio movements, but also repeated irruptions of a rapid rhythmic figure scratched out on violin (an interruption? words of anger the slowly unfurling sweet nothings of the adagio cannot suppress?). The climax of this movement combines the melody and intensity of these disparate tendencies into something more closely resembling a unified whole. Repin and Golan tossed aside the technical challenges and difficulties in ensemble posed by this sonata, presenting a virtuosic interpretation. Repin’s rich tone began this recital and remained in force throughout; Golan handled the tricky piano parts with blithe dexterity.
Next we heard Maurice Ravel, Sonata No. 2 for violin and piano in G (M.77; composed 1923-1927). The Allegretto opens on a theme that is both soaring and lilting by turns and this characterizes all three movements of the sonata. Repin and Golan presented the opening of the Ravel as though the audience had walked into the middle of a conversation (not unlike the beginning of the Janácek). An overheard melody gradually opened out to encompass the whole sonata and the audience. The second movement, “Blues,” records Ravel’s fascination with the St. Louis Blues music W. C. Handy played in Paris during the years Ravel was composing this work. In A? Major, this movement embodies the bitonality and voicing characteristic of these Blues and the poly-rhythms beloved of Ravel. Repin attacked the opening pizzicati; Golan entered with a heavy left hand which promptly yielded to a lighter touch as the bowed violin melody came to the fore. Here, too, Repin used portamenti in the melody, marking this performance with his own characteristic interpretation. The third movement, “Perpetuum mobile,” returns us to the key of G Major and uses what we might term a “walking melody” in constant motion, with off-beat rhythms and some flying arpeggios. Repin and Golan offered a captivating take on this work.
Following intermission, we heard Edvard Grieg, Sonata No. 2 for violin and piano in G (Op. 13; composed in 1867). This highly Norwegian work (too much so for Grieg’s composition teacher Niels Gade, it is said) strikes me as a concerto in the guise of a sonata. The opening movement, Lento doloroso – Allegro vivace, begins mournfully in the piano, before the violin blazes in. And blaze Repin did, from thunderous first chord to leaping and rhythmic melody later in the same movement. The Allegretto tranquillo combines tranquility and agitation, dwelling more on the mournful sounds heard at the very opening of the sonata. In the finale, Allegro animato, the violin’s soaring melody dances, drones, and accompanies itself (and the piano) with left-hand pizzicati; musical gestures here recall those in the finale of the Ravel, and the Adagio of the Janácek. Repin excelled in the vivace and animato sections of the Grieg sonata.
The formal program ended with two shorter, yet show-stopping, concert pieces: Ernest Chausson, Poème, Op. 25 (1896) and Maurice Ravel, Tzigane (1924). Chausson’s Poème has a lengthy solo theme that spans a wide swath of the instrument’s register and requires seamless bow-changes. Ravel’s Tzigane alternates between lush melody and rapid passagework, sometimes arpeggiated, sometimes in harmonics, and requires blazing left-hand pizzicato accompaniment. This is not music for the faint of heart, nor the unaccomplished. That was not the case last night.
I found much to enjoy in this recital. Still, I do wish Repin had focused more on the tenderness of the Grieg “tranquillo” and the subtlety in Chausson’s Poème, where a more intimate dynamic in the theme (as in Oistrakh’s recording or in Ehnes’s) can facilitate the allusion of an unchanging bow direction or smoother string crossings with absolute consistency of tone. In showcasing his virtuosic side, Repin underplayed his considerable lyric talents. As for Itamar Golan, he was in many ways the unsung star of this recital, offering a sensitive and highly musical collaboration throughout a highly demanding program of music, all the while seated behind Vadim Repin.
The recital began a few minutes late. I have no idea why anyone felt the necessity to add a row of folding chairs in the front of the house, and I saw many puzzled looks as we witnessed Jordan Hall staff scurry to set them up at the last minute. The house was not packed, so this seemed doubly strange. More troubling, though, the audience was very restless at several points during this recital. We all feel the change in the (highly unseasonable) weather, of course. But during the first movement of the Janácek, harsh words in Russian were uttered in the balcony; I did not catch them, so cannot report on the cause. Add cell phone ringtones and some dropped objects, and the recital held a surprising series of regrettable additions to the programmed music. Fortunately they did not impede the production of exciting music.
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